Mumbai: Former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Nana Patole’s resignation from the BJP in December 2017 has thrown up challenges for four major parties in Maharashtra. Patole, who was MP from Bhandara-Gondia Lok Sabha constituency, resigned his seat and joined the Congress party in the first week of January. A bypoll is likely to be declared this month.

The BJP is keen on winning the election since Patole had quit after disparaging Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Meanwhile, the Congress may not be keen on fielding him, since it could hurt its ongoing patch-up with Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) whose top politician Praful Patel has represented the constituency for long.

The Shiv Sena could play spoilsport too, since it can take away some of the BJP votes if it fields a candidate of its own.

Functionaries from the BJP, Congress, NCP, and also the Shiv Sena which is part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, say the bypoll could also be a test of public mood, nearly a year-and-a-half before the scheduled general elections.

Patole, a former Congress member of legislative assembly in Maharashtra, had joined the BJP ahead of the 2014 general elections. He contested against senior NCP leader and then sitting MP Praful Patel from Bhandara-Gondia constituency and won by nearly 150,000 votes.

In September last year, Patole publicly criticized Modi’s style of functioning, saying “the latter did not like being asked questions about public grievances". After he quit the BJP, Patole said he would contest the Lok Sabha bypoll only if either Praful Patel or Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis were in the fray. He also said that there was speculation about Patel joining the BJP and contesting the bypoll.

But when Patole joined the Congress, he said he was not too keen to contest the Lok Sabha bypoll and rather wanted to fight Maharashtra assembly election.

The Bhandara-Gondia constituency was home ground for Praful Patel even before the NCP was formed. Patel was elected four times from this constituency but he suffered a massive defeat in 2014.

A BJP MP from Maharashtra, who did not want to be named, said Patole had “little personal contribution to the victory and got elected in the Modi wave". “He was one of those several MPs in Maharashtra who won only because of Modiji. He wanted to be made a minister at the centre or at least in Maharashtra, but there are more deserving claimants from the party and this was explained to him," said this MP.

A BJP legislator from Vidarbha, however, said Patole was “disturbed" over the BJP leadership’s “warm relationship" with Praful Patel. “He was worried that the BJP may not give him ticket in 2019 and would rather back Patel. Patel has excellent relationships with some senior BJP leaders including Modiji and Nitin Gadkari (Union minister for transport and shipping). That worried Patole," the BJP legislator said requesting anonymity.

Congress party functionaries say the party may have accommodated Patole but fielding him in the by-poll was “a call the top leadership has to take". “Praful Patel has good relations even with Sonia ji who has campaigned for him in the elections even though he was contesting from the NCP. The Bhandara-Gondia seat belongs to the NCP and it would be imprudent to claim the seat given our recent efforts to build an alliance with the NCP," said a senior Congress leader from Maharashtra requesting anonymity.

This leader, however, admitted that backing Praful Patel, if he contests the by-poll from the NCP, was something Patole would find “difficult to digest". “We cannot field him against Patel if the NCP wants to contest the by-poll and if we have an alliance with the NCP," said the Congress leader.

For the BJP, the bypoll has become a matter of prestige since Patole was the only MP who publicly criticised Modi. A state BJP functionary said the party would field a nominee who had the “winning merit". “Patole has raised farmers’ grievances while quitting the BJP. We have to field a candidate who could win and demonstrate that farmers are still with Modi ji," said this BJP functionary, who did not want to be named and who ruled out Praful Patel joining the BJP.

The BJP is worried that the Shiv Sena, which has increasingly distanced itself from the BJP in the last four years, may field a candidate to eat into the BJP votes. “Shiv Sena does not have a big presence in that constituency, but it can take away some BJP votes. Patole had met Uddhav Thackeray soon after he left the BJP to solicit his support," said the BJP functionary.

The NCP has not officially declared its position so far.

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